GOP-controlled county commission: What does it mean for development, code enforcement and elections?

When Boca Raton attorney Michael Barnett is sworn into office, Republicans will control the county commission for the first time since 2006.

Mike Diamond
Palm Beach Post

With Democrat Dave Kerner’s resignation and upset wins of two Republicans in November, the Palm Beach County's commission makeup will soon undergo a drastic change — from a 6-1 Democrat majority to a 4-3 Republican majority.

Attorney Michael Barnett, the county’s GOP chair, was selected by Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill Kerner’s seat on the county commission. Barnett will be sworn into office either Tuesday or at the next county commission meeting. When that happens, Republicans will control the county commission for the first time since 2006.

Palm Beach County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Michael Barnett was named as Dave Kerner's replacement on the county commission, giving the commission a majority of Republicans for the first time since 2006.

Kerner, who endured the wrath of Democrats for endorsing DeSantis in the recent gubernatorial election, resigned from the county commission when DeSantis appointed him executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Some Democrats, including former Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried, who was unsuccessful in her bid to become the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, had predicted Kerner would get a state job in exchange for the endorsement.

Under state law, Florida's governor has the power to fill vacancies on county commissions and county school boards. And the replacement does not have to be someone from the same party. At special districts such as the Port of Palm Beach, the agency itself can fill a vacant seat.

So what will the impact of a GOP-majority commission have on policy?

Barnett told The Palm Beach Post he is not prepared to take positions on issues currently before the commission, noting that it is important for him first be briefed by staff.

Former Palm Beach County mayor Dave Kerner.

“I have a lot to learn,” Barnett said, “but I expect to work well with the existing commissioners including the Democratic ones.”

Here are a few big impact issues that likely will come into play:

The Agricultural Reserve: Kerner had supported restrictions to limit development

Some environmentalists, such as Drew Martin of the Sierra Club, are concerned over the loss of Kerner, who, for the most part, supported restrictions to limit development in the Agricultural Reserve.

“He was not perfect, but he often voted against the unprecedented changes sought by developers,” Martin said, referring to GL Homes’ land swap idea that will be heard this year. The homebuilder is seeking to build on preserved land in exchange for giving the county land outside the Ag Reserve that could be used for a water-resource project.

Kerner gets state post:DeSantis names GOP chair to replace him on county commission

'A bridge too far':892-home plan paused as county balks at Kolter's Loxahatchee proposal

No more semi storage in Acreage?County is cracking down — and truckers are not happy

The Ag Reserve is west of Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach and east of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in unincorporated areas of the county. It was created to limit density and protect agriculture. With the housing shortage in the county, housing advocates argue the time has come for workforce housing to be permitted in the region.

Recently, the owner of land that was preserved with funds from a 1999 bond issue asked the county to lift the preservation requirement to allow it to build more than 800 workforce housing units to the north of Delray Marketplace. County commissioners will discuss the issue at an upcoming workshop.

Joe O’Donnell, a farmer in the Ag Reserve and a spokesman for Save the Agriculture Reserve, said he was disappointed with Kerner’s vote last month to transmit for state review several development proposals seeking approval under the new commerce designation. One proposal could result in a distribution center, the type of development that is not permitted, O’Donnell noted.

When attorney Michael Barnett is sworn into office either Tuesday or at the next county commission meeting, Republicans will control the county commission for the first time since 2006.

“It is difficult to say what we can expect from the new commissioners,” O’Donnell said. “There is no frame of reference but some of the approvals from the previous ones were difficult to understand. I’m hopeful that once the issues are explained, the new commissioners will vote to preserve the Ag Reserve.”

Election integrity: Will Palm Beach County change the way it counts ballots?

Election deniers continue to question Superintendent of Elections Wendy Sartory Link’s oversight.

They want her to use ballots that would be manually counted, a procedure she says would take months to do before a winner could be declared. Her critics question the integrity of the voting machines that are being used. Previous commissioners have called on the critics to take their complaints to the governor’s office. The critics want county commissioners to withhold approval of her budget until changes are made.

Code enforcement: Will truckers vs. residents battle heat up again?

Republican Commissioner Sara Baxter, who took office in late November, sides with those who feel code enforcement is overzealously enforcing the county’s zoning code. Previous commissioners praised the agency for addressing issues that adversely impact the quality of life of county residents.

According to the Town-Crier, a community newspaper that covers the western suburbs, Baxter will call for a moratorium on enforcement of the code relating to storage of semi-tractors and their long trailers on residential property in the Loxahatchee area. Baxter’s aide said that the crackdown could put people out of business. The truckers recently staged a protest outside county offices in West Palm Beach calling for code enforcement to back off. State Rep. Rick Roth of West Palm Beach supports the truckers.

County officials have defended the citations, saying that the road system in the region cannot handle the heavy rigs. They note that recent changes to the county code loosened restrictions as opposed to making them stricter. Prior to the changes, no commercial vehicles could be stored on residential lots. The code now allows for the storage of one commercial vehicle if it does not weigh more than 12,500 pounds or exceed 26 feet in length. The rig operators say their vehicles often exceed both the height and weight limit.

Just days after her election, Baxter invited her supporters to attend a birthday party/fundraiser at the White Trail Social and Garden Club in Jupiter Farms, a business that has been cited by code enforcement for building a facility without building permits and for staging commercial events in a residential area. The facility’s website says it can host weddings, showers, corporate events, birthday parties and life celebrations.

Baxter, after receiving complaints, eventually changed the site for her fundraiser/birthday party. Had she held the affair at White Trail, she would have run the risk of having code enforcement using sheriff deputies shut down the event.

State election reports show that Baxter raised $25,000 in November with $15,000 coming from Ft. Lauderdale-based BBX Capital Real Estate LLC, a company involved in real estate joint ventures, including investments in multifamily rental apartment communities, single-family master-planned for-sale housing communities, and commercial properties.

Efforts to obtain comment from Baxter were unsuccessful.

Mike Diamond is a journalist at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. He covers county government. You can reach him at mdiamond@pbpost.comHelp support local journalism. Subscribe today.